Is Rick Grimes Crazy? What the Walking Dead can teach us about the course of mental illness

*Some readers may consider the below to contain spoilers… be warned!

Last night, I attended a screening of The PaleyFest’s The Walking Dead Panel, a live event recorded at the Saban Theatre, Los Angeles, for the Paley Center for Media. Chris Hardwick, the host, presented a preview of Season 3, Episode 12 (Clear), showed some behind-the-scenes special effects vignettes, and interviewed writer Robert Kirkman and actors Andrew Lincoln (“Rick”), Norman Reedus (“Daryl”), Danai Gurira (“Michonne”), Steven Yeun (“Glenn”) and other favorites from the cast. Naturally, I cringed through the 25 minutes of behind-the-scenes zombie-making and killing (I’m not a fan of blood and gore, which speaks to how much I must love this show’s writing and character development). The interviews, however, placed an introspective focus on many psychological themes that come up with the Walking Dead: Is Rick crazy? Who should take on the role of leadership? Are humans innately self-serving and callous? Hostile, even? It’s as if Kirkman created his own psychological experiment: In a time of a zombie apocalypse, how do we react? Do we unravel? Who is more capable of survival and why? Like other great writers in comic book, horror, or science fiction, Kirkman doesn’t simply assume that “It’s the zombie apocalypse–anything goes.” Not at all. The zombies exist as a way for us to reflect on human behavior during a time of disaster and direness. Everyone does not go crazy. In fact, I’d argue that everyone self-adjusts and maintains their psychological functioning, with few exceptions.

I’ve always believed The Walking Dead isn’t really about zombies; the show is about horrific fear, psychological strength, and humanity.

During the panel, Andrew Lincoln, who plays Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes, admitted that when he learned that his character would have visual and auditory hallucinations of his dead wife, Lori, he researched the occurrence of mental instability during grief. He eloquently described Rick’s mental state following Lori’s death, by pointing out that strange experiences during the period of bereavement are quite common: “When people lose someone they love, the brain…it plays tricks with them, placing that person they lost in the spaces where they used to be.” That is, the sound of Lori’s voice and the vision of her physical body seem to appear in empty spaces where she would have been or used to be.

A hallucination is defined as an experience involving the perception of something not actually present. Hallucinations alone do not indicate that someone is insane or crazy–in fact, we all experience these strange perception tricks once in a while.  They are particularly common following the sudden death of a loved one. Lincoln, therefore, normalized to the panel’s audience the experience of a person in mourning who has lost someone they love so abruptly, establishing that Rick is following a normal course of bereavement following Lori’s death. You can read more about hallucinations during mourning from this Scientific American article.

In addition to bereavement, hallucinations can also occur within episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and substance dependence. The occurrence of the symptom alone, therefore, is insufficient in diagnosing a problem. Over the course of the last month, I’ve supervised more than a dozen cases with histories of having visions at one point or another, and sometimes the exact reason is unclear.

Hallucinations are a neurobiological reaction as well as a psychological reaction during mourning: Rick tries to keep Lori present because the notion of losing her completely may be too upsetting or frightening to him. His brain, his psyche, hadn’t been prepared for this sudden loss. In fact, he may find the images to be comforting or soothing. In the comic book version we see Rick maintain phone “conversations” with Lori for a much longer time, perhaps even knowing that her voice is a product of his own mind.

In Season 3 Episode 10 (Home), Rick sees Lori in a white dress, standing over her own grave. He is able to reach out to her and feel her touch his face. To Rick, the experience is real. But the voices and visions begin to frighten Rick, who realizes that if the images are all in his head, he must be crazy. Without anyone around him to validate his experiences and remind him that this is the normal process of healing after losing a loved one, he starts to believe he’s unraveling.

Interestingly, after Episode 3.12 (Clear), audiences and journalists want to know if Rick is “sane” again. In this episode, Rick encounters Morgan, who he hasn’t seen since the first episode of The Walking Dead when the zombie apocalypse began. Morgan has created a bunker of sorts, hiding out in a small town, capturing zombies and burning their bodies, and surviving in a building alone, surrounded by armaments and booby-traps. He’s protected his territory but also seems to have barricaded himself in this isolated, desperate world. It’s very Lord of the Flies. And Morgan is…different. He does not recognize Rick, mutters incoherently about being “clear,” and has scribbled incomprehensible notes to himself on the walls with chalk. What is clear, though, is that Morgan has lost everyone. He lost his wife early in the series, and explains to Rick that his son was bitten by a zombie and turned right before his very eyes. When Morgan realizes who Rick is, he refuses to go back with him to the prison, where a group of others will take him in. (For Rick, this is a huge gesture, given that he often mistrusts other outsiders.) Morgan lacks the sense to perceive Rick’s connectivity, his compassion, and instead chooses to stay behind. And Kirkman gives us the sense that he has chosen suicide. We know Morgan will decompensate further, perhaps fall deeper and deeper in the depths of insanity and become mayor of crazytown.

The psychological intuitiveness of this episode is worth praise. We have worried about Rick up to this point, in that we have seen his increasingly disturbing episodes where he seems to break from reality. We have seen his son question his ability to lead the pack–essentially, a family member telling him he is unfit to carry out his job due to his mental instability. We’ve also seen an increase in Rick’s hostility. He seems quicker to draw his gun, less likely to be altruistic and compassionate.  Audiences, rightly so, wonder if this character is indeed, going crazy.

Morgan’s appearance is undoubtedly Kirkman’s way of showing us the complexity and chronicity of mental illness.

Humans, in fact, deal with tragedy and trauma in many ways. Multiple traumas, like witnessing horrific violence, being forced to end life, and losing a loved one, will increase the likelihood of psychological responses like emotional numbing, social avoidance, hardening or “steeling” of the self, and hypervigilance. The deck is stacked for Rick. In fact, given everything he has encountered, his psychological strength and resilience is particularly impressive. Yes, I’m saying the guy that sees things is stable. He is able to recognize the dysfunctional and delusional state that Morgan is in. He realizes that his images are products of his own mind, which means he must acknowledge that his wife is gone forever. Rick realizes that if he does not let go of Lori’s image, if he continues to engage with the false images and sounds of his dead wife, if he does not connect with the living, he is very likely going to end up like Morgan. His offer to take Morgan back with him speaks to his ability for compassion and connectivity.

Kirkman confirms that in this episode, seeing Morgan may set Rick on the path to psychological healing. At the end of the episode, Michonne, who is typically reserved and withholding, confesses to Rick that she, too, has seen things that are not there. That single moment of validation allows Rick to align with someone who is healthy and stable–someone who he sees as strong, and distance himself further from Morgan.

If Rick had never lost his wife, would he have experienced bizarre hallucinations or breaks from reality? Would Morgan have even entered his delusional state if he hadn’t lost his wife and son? It’s hard to say.  But this season of the show faces the idea of illness and saneness head on, reminding us just how fluid mental states can be. Stability of the mind is episodic. I believe Kirkman selects Rick, the seemingly strong, resilient and morally stable person to breakdown in order to remind us of the blurry boundary between stability and dysfunction. In a world overrun by zombies, even the most most disturbing and horrific acts of human behavior can almost be seen as adaptive and…normal.

4 Responses to “Is Rick Grimes Crazy? What the Walking Dead can teach us about the course of mental illness”

  1. Jojo says:

    Great article. That episode was one of the best. Thanks for confirming my layman’s assumption of the writer’s intent.

  2. Virginia says:

    I LOVE this article! you did a fantastic job of bringing out the emotions and intents that the author wanted the audience to see.

  3. Salman says:

    Rick’s character is very intriguing from a psychological standpoint. He’s gone through so much. In the comics, even his little daughter is murdered along with his wife. I can’t imagine how the writers can make his mental illness as close to reality as possible. It’s unimaginable.

  4. Will says:

    I’m impressed with the article; very well thought out. Though perhaps the latest update to the series might change a few things?

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